Political Animal


April 20, 2012 11:03 AM Post-Factual Politics

By Ed Kilgore

It’s become a pretty common-place observation that partisan affiliation—or even more dramatically, heavy consumption of partisan media—can have a pretty dramatic impact on how information is filtered, or even how reality is perceived.

But as John Sides notes at Ten Miles Square, polling wizard Charles Franklin has found that the partisan angle on one fairly prominent issue can produce something very like an inversion of “the facts” as they are perceived.

Franklin contrasts today’s split of opinion as to whether the president has much control over gas prices (and hence should be help accountable when they are perceived as being too high), in which Republicans say “yes” and Democrats say “no,” with published polling back in 2006, when the vast majority of Democrats disagreed with a smaller majority of Republicans and held that George W. Bush could have been doing something to deal with an earlier spike in gas prices.

It’s possible, I suppose, that Americans have just changed their minds, but that’s unlikely. The only real question is whether they perceive facts in such a way as to help or hinder their favored politicians, or instead are just reflecting what they hear from the news or opinion outlets they choose to follow. If the latter is true, perhaps the partisan gab industry is serving as important a role in “educating” Americans as its pretensions would suggest. But if not, then the commentariat may just serve as a sort of Greek Chorus for large political groupings that independently arrive at highly partisan conclusions about what’s right and wrong—or true and false—in the vast ongoing flow of information.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • cmdicely on April 20, 2012 11:22 AM:

    This piece really should be titled "Post-Factual Commentary"

    It's possible, I suppose, that Americans have just changed their minds, but that's unlikely

    Why? Especially considering that the underlying facts have changed. Or do you seriously believe that the George W. Bush in 2006 had the same practical power that Barack Obama has in 2011? Why wouldn't that extend to people's perceptions specifically of their power in the area of gas prices.

  • boatboy_srq on April 20, 2012 11:29 AM:

    There's more to this argument than looking at party affiliation and polling.

    In 2006, the resident of the WH was a card-carrying reactionary, 1%er oil man in the pocket of ExxonMobil. We'd gone to war in Iraq three years before with the stated expectation that all that oil under Iraqi soil would more than pay for that effort. It wasn't that the President couldn't do anything about oil prices, it was that the President couldn't persuade his fellow oilmen from Texas to do anything about oil prices, and that every time anyone suggested federal intervention the immediate response from the Reichwing was denunciation of the suggestion as unpatriotic and damaging to national security. In 2006 nobody talked about oil speculators ramping up the price because nobody wanted to talk about speculation in general: it took the real estate crash and Great Recession to make anyone even recognize the problem.

    In 2010 we have a fairly vanilla pol in the WH who has far less pull with industry as a whole and oil industry in particular. There's a history (Enron, anyone?) of these industries screwing with public figures they don't like just because they can. The outcry from the Right for intervention is conveniently forgetting all the reasons they gave four years earlier why that intervention is impossible, and the reaction from the Dems starts with an unvoiced "but didn't you tell us last time that we couldn't do this because...?"

    If you're going to discuss "perceptions of the facts" it would be useful to remember that the personalities behind the perceptions, and behind the facts themselves, are major factors in that arithmetic.

  • Jamie on April 20, 2012 11:30 AM:

    Studies of misconceptions in science education have shown that once you introduce a misconception into a system, it's almost impossible to get it out again.

  • M. Paul on April 20, 2012 11:33 AM:

    Hmmmm. The phrase, Post-Factual Media, makes more sense.

    I started reading Cal-Pundit and TPM not because Kevin and Josh were saying what I wanted to hear but what I was not hearing in the straight media. I think if one chooses to judge politicians from the Opinion blogging perspective then one is now more likely to hear what one wants; some for polling numbers.

    What I need to know is where is the new objective bullshit filter fact finder we so desperately need.

    M. Paul

  • ashton on April 20, 2012 11:36 AM:

    I find the perception of the President having the power to influence gas prices to be rather silly when you compare Bush to Obama, as the two aren't really comparable. In addition, people rarely explain why they are not comparable and instead focus on a tit-for-tat argument. It quickly becomes a game of, "but Mom, the others kids did it," with no actual thinking involved.

    Yes, Democrats accused Bush of influencing the price of gas, but not because he was the President. Bush started a war in a part of the world where most of the oil comes from, thereby causing the price of oil to rise. If you recall, the Bush administration even tried to address this, by claiming that the war would be paid for based on the cheap oil that would come from Iraq. That never came true and instead the oil market went wild, with prices sharply increasing. This is why people claimed that Bush caused the price of gas to increase. I think most people understand that if you start a war in a place that produces oil, regardless of any sanctions or blockades on that nation, markets will automatically react as though the supply decreased.

    Obama didn't start a war in an oil-producing nation that caused oil prices to rise, and therefore gas prices. If he had, the argument would be valid. While gas prices have risen, no one ever specifies why they believe they have, short of conspiracy theories and counter-intuitive claims. Suddenly the free market, which is the solution to all problems, is ignored and factors such as world demand increasing, thanks to Americans buying cheap products from China and India, is not viewed as factor.

    A far better comparison is the cost of gas following hurricane Katrina. An event not caused by Bush had a heavy impact on the price of gas. Bush didn't have the ability to stop a hurricane in its tracks and I don't recall people blaming Bush for the hurricane itself, just the response to the hurricane. Those blaming Obama and justifying it with the claim that people blamed Bush seem to leave this part out entirely, not by accident.

  • Lis Carey on April 20, 2012 11:37 AM:

    G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and all their buddies were oil men. That's a real reason to think they had more power over oil prices than any president, Democrat or Republican, not similarly connected. And now, all those oil barons have concluded that Obama is The Enemy, while simultaneously the Republicans are blocking any meaningful restrictions on oil speculation.

    Why isn't that a rational reason to believe that GWB could have, not brought gas prices down to some idyllic low, but at least have done more to bring them down than Obama can now?

  • Ron Byers on April 20, 2012 12:03 PM:

    There are a couple of things going on here. First, the economy has improved. As it has improved the demand for gasoline has increased. An improving economy will naturally cause gasoline prices to go up. In addition, the Wall Street hedge fund managers who are really driving the current speculative bubble are in Obama's tax fairness bullseye. They want Obama to fail so they can keep their 15% income tax cap.
    They have every incentive to do what they can to squeeze the economy.

    If you think about it, Obama is responsible for the current rise in gas prices because Obama's policies have helped the economy and his drive for tax fairness has given the 1% an incentive to play speculative games.

  • PhillyCooke on April 20, 2012 12:16 PM:

    While the president can't directly manipulate gas prices, launching wars in the Middle East and threatening new wars in that region absolutely led to instability that caused speculators to drive up the price of gas. Which president was it who was fond of such wars?

  • Vince on April 20, 2012 1:03 PM:

    The president has a good deal of power to rein in oil speculators, which is, at least partially part of the rise in oil/gas prices. But, given that he kowtows to the financial industry as much as just about any pol I can think of he has chosen to not put any pressure on the CFTC to do that. You know, the job creators have to be able to extract their rents from the rest of us.

  • rrk1 on April 20, 2012 1:12 PM:

    Both Bush and Obama had, have, some limited influence on gas prices should they choose to use it. Bush could have and Obama could reduce the influence of speculators in the market, but neither chose to do so. Bush/Cheney had access and clout with their oil buddies and chose not to use that option. Obama doesn't have any oil buddies, but doesn't want to alienate the oil cartel anymore than it already is. There's nothing he can do to get their support, but he might persuade the movers and shakers to spend a little less trying to destroy him. In any case, the factors affecting oil prices are not

    The strategic oil reserve is an available, but limited, weapon to drive down prices, but Bush wasn't interested in driving down prices, and Obama isn't given to any type of aggressive action short-term or long-term.

    In both cases we can see willful helplessness.

    Captcha SUCKS!! again.

  • Shane Taylor on April 20, 2012 2:03 PM:

    This topic is bound up with more than partisan passions. For one thing, the mechanics of a global oil market are alien to most people. Given a weak grasp of how the system works, it shouldn't be surprising that political allegiance has an outsized influence on popular views of what's happening. For another, postwar America was built on cheap oil, which many have mistaken for a birthright. If oil ain't cheap, they're quick to say it's a conspiracy.

    That said, it is worth repeating a rational reason for high oil prices:


  • Texas Aggie on April 20, 2012 2:36 PM:

    As others have pointed out, the situations are only superficially comparable. Bush was good buddies with the Saudis and had promised to use his influence to get them to pump more oil. He didn't. Also, Bush had the backing of the oil industry while McCain got over 90% of their political donations in the last presidential election. Bush could have used his clout to get them to stop creating artificial scarcities, but he didn't. Bush had a republican Congress that was eager to do his bidding, and Obama has a republican house and a filibuster prone Senate so that even his attempts to rein in the speculators doesn't even get to the starting line.

    So it is those who argue that no president can influence oil prices who seem to be out of touch with reality.

  • Crissa on April 21, 2012 1:36 AM:

    I gotta say, I put my hat in for the reasoning: W Bush was pursuing war in an oil-producing nation, and Obama isn't.

    So yeah, Bush could do alot about oil prices that just aren't options on Obama's table.

    Context is everything.

    Anyhow, I didn't think then nor do I think now that the binary 'alot' and 'none' is misleading.

  • Crissa on April 21, 2012 1:40 AM:

    Err, I did think it was misleading, I didn't think it was a valid question.